Bradley Wiggins took the yellow jersey and Chris Froome the stage win in a day of spectacular dominance for the British team
Words by Edward Pickering at La Planche des Belles Filles
Saturday July 7, 2012
Team Sky demonstrated how they will win this Tour de France in a bullying, awe-provoking display of collective strength on the Planche des Belles Filles climb.
The British team shredded the Tour peloton into and up the steep final ascent, measuring their progress in watts expended, rivals dropped and domestiques burned. In the end it came down to simple maths. Michael Rogers reduced the front group to around 25 riders in the first two kilometres of the climb. By the time Richie Porte was done after another two kilometres, there were only seven survivors, including two from Sky.
Then Chris Froome went to work. The revelation of last year’s Vuelta reduced the shortlist of possible winners of the yellow jersey to a shortlist of two, possibly three, leading Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali into the final 500 metres. The British team’s dominance was such that Froome still had enough left to sprint away from the others to win the stage.
Sky now lead three of the five classifications at the Tour. Wiggins is in yellow, Froome’s bonus for winning the first summit finish of the race was the polka dot jersey, and they have led the team classification since the first day in Liège.
However, Wiggins and Froome weren’t the only beneficiaries of Sky’s strength and tactics. Cadel Evans was unable to do any damage to his rivals, but he’s only 10 seconds behind Wiggins overall, and Sky must remember that letting him stay there will be a risky strategy. The same goes for Vincenzo Nibali, another six seconds behind. Wiggins hasn’t won the Tour yet.
It was significant that there wasn’t a single attack on the final climb, save for Cadel Evans’ attempt to jump away inside the final 400 metres. Sky’s pace crushed their rivals’ spirits and blunted their weapons. But to criticise them for using their resources in this way, which is their best chance of winning the Tour, is like criticising a boa constrictor for suffocating its prey.
Tellingly, with the exception of Evans’ brief attack, a Sky rider was leading the stage from the moment they caught the final survivor of the early break, until the finish line.
It was clear that the Tour had entered a new phase today. RadioShack have defended Fabian Cancellara’s jersey for a week, but in the certainty that the Swiss rider wouldn’t be able to hold on to it on the finishing climb, RadioShack were replaced at the head of the field by the distinctive yellow helmets of Team Sky.
The British team took responsibility for pacing the peloton behind a strong-looking break of seven riders. Michael Albasini (Orica), Dmitry Fofonov (Astana), Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Martin Velits (Omega Pharma), Christophe Riblon (Ag2r), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) and Chris Sorensen (Saxo Bank) built a lead of five minutes through the forested foothills of the Vosges. Sanchez and Riblon are former stage winners at the Tour, while Albasini, second at Flèche Wallonne this year, is a proven contender on uphill finishes.
The Tour is running parallel to the German border, and the architecture of the houses, with their steep-sided roofs, must have reminded the peloton what was waiting for them at the end of the stage.
But while we’re now into the middle mountains, the break was given as little leeway as those of the previous week were into the flat finishes. The escapees’ lead melted to three minutes at 30 kilometres to go, two minutes at 20 kilometres to go and one minute at 10 kilometres to go. The symmetry just underlined the efficiency of the pursuit and the inevitability of the catch.
Sky weren’t the only team with an agenda. Garmin, battered in the crashes beyond anything they could have feared at the start of the race, put in some work, as much to boost morale as for their stated aim of giving Dan Martin a run at the polka dot jersey. BMC also lurked behind Sky.
Through the streets of Plancher-les-Mines, just before the final climb, the peloton was led by a line of five Sky riders, followed by five BMC riders. They were closing the gap to the lead group at such a pace now that the survivors of the break were racing each other just to be the last to be caught.
Sky’s pace on the final climb was ruthless. Rogers time-trialled his way up the early slopes, then Richie Porte, his Tasmania-shaped pendant swinging from his neck and glinting in the bright sunlight, did the same. The television pictures showed rider after rider getting burned off: Leipheimer, Cancellara, Van Garderen, Basso, Frank Schleck and Samuel Sanchez all lost hope of a good overall finish on La Planche des Belles Filles.
With two kilometres to go, there were seven riders left: Wiggins, Froome, Evans, Nibali, Rein Taaramae, Pierre Rolland, Denis Menchov and Haimar Zubeldia. By the time Froome led Evans, Wiggins and Nibali over the line, it was hard not to think that he had drawn clear the three riders who will finish on the podium in Paris.